Here’s why government plans for longer tenancies don’t go far enough

Rental property in London. Image: Getty.

When the modern private rental market was devised as part of the 1988 Housing Act, flexibility was the theme. If a landlord decided they no longer wanted to be a landlord, then they could use Section 21 of the Act to evict their tenants with two months’ notice, with no reason necessary, and cash in their investment.

In theory, this was balanced by flexibility for the tenant too – they could move out with minimal notice as well. But the Act failed to acknowledge the enormous power imbalance between landlord and tenant. If your tenant ends the tenancy, your business now needs to find a new customer. If your landlord ends the tenancy, you need to find a new home.

According to the latest English Housing Survey, 271,000 private renter households were asked to leave by their landlord in the past three years.

Whether we make the decision or not, moving house fills few of us with joy. Some landlords abuse our reluctance to attend a dispiriting series of flat viewings, then pack everything we own into boxes and haul them across town, by evicting tenants who make a fuss. The threat of a retaliatory eviction discourages tenants from complaining and results in a tenure where the EHS found 28 per cent of homes failed decency tests.

The power imbalance is so wide that when the Conservatives stopped thinking of housing simply in terms of home ownership and started making moves to improve renting, revenge evictions were the first thing they agreed to outlaw.

But the protections for tenants under the resulting Deregulation Act 2015 came with heavy caveats. First, the landlord must be doing something illegal – namely letting out a property which contains serious hazards. Second, the local council must serve an improvement notice on the landlord before the tenant gets protection from a no-fault eviction. Third, that protection lapses after six months. Finally, a landlord can get around all of that by just putting the rent up so high the tenant is forced to move.

Now it appears that few tenants are getting the protection they’re entitled to. We looked at Freedom of Information data gathered from the 100 councils with the largest private renter populations – approximately two-thirds of the total in England – and published our findings last month.

Of the 72 councils that recorded “Category 1” hazards in 2016-17 (28 didn’t), a total of 12,962 were found. Yet the councils only took appropriate enforcement action in 2366 cases – meaning that just 18 per cent of tenants had protection from a revenge eviction. Only eight councils in total issued as many improvement notices as hazards they identified. And just four councils recorded cases where a Section 21 eviction notice was served on tenants who’d complained.


It is no secret that local councils are strapped for cash, which might explain why there is so much poor practice. But tenants should not have to live in the right town to have the confidence to complain. A flaky, fiddly and temporary system of protection is not enough to deliver safe and secure homes.

That is one of many reasons why Generation Rent is campaigning alongside the London Renters Union, ACORN and the New Economics Foundation to abolish Section 21.

Last week the government published its long-awaited consultation on longer tenancies. It proposes to replace the 1988 model with three-year tenancies, retaining the ability of the tenant to move out after six months. But the government has undermined this progress by letting amateur landlords keep their flexibility, allowing them to take back a property in the three years if they want to sell or move back in. According to last year’s EHS, 63 per cent of private sector evictions take place for these reasons.

A three-year tenancy with limited grounds for eviction should at least give tenants greater confidence to complain. But that’s not enough. They should also have the knowledge that, so long as they meet their legal obligations, the home is theirs. If landlords can evict a blameless tenant, the rental market will keep failing to provide the certainty we associate with home.

Ending Section 21 would still allow evictions if a tenant breaks the contract. If a landlord wants to sell, that’s fine, but they should sell to another landlord, with the tenants staying put – or to the tenants themselves. If they want somewhere to live, they can rent.

The government’s consultation is a huge opportunity to make renting a genuine alternative to owner occupation. The EHS reports that 2.7m private renter households expect to buy eventually – yet fewer than 1m have more than £5000 in savings towards a deposit. That leaves a lot of people who will be denied the stability they crave for years to come. By abolishing Section 21 the government would give renters a stable home now.

Dan Wilson Craw is director of Generation Rent.

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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.